At this year’s Viennale, a local film festival in Vienna, I had the chance to watch an early screening of Pablo Larrain‘s Spencer. Kristen Stewart takes the daunting task of telling Diana, Princess of Wales’ time over Christmas in 1991 with the Royale family. Over a few days, we witness the pressure of what it means to stand among Royalty with little interest in being there and their traditions. The opening tagline that it’s a “fable based on a true tragedy” tells you all you need to know while hiding the anxiety you’re about to witness.
At the core of this story lies Kristen Stewart‘s performance as Diana. There’s a lot of subtlety within the lack of it. Throughout the entire film, one can see that she is always on the edge of falling apart. We close in frequently to see the inner conflict barely managing to stay in. She plays a convincing interpretation of the character in this fable of a true tragedy. The film often relies solely on her performance to carry the weight, as we start to unravel what is real and what isn’t. Many scenes are her alone in a room, trying to wrestle with the reality that
Jack Farthing‘s cold performance as Prince Charles offers a window into what it means to give up and let the rules set by generations become your new reality. One of the stories’ core catalysts is also the uncertainty of her own marriage, as both sides accuse each other of finding another. The brief stare by Camilla sets the underlying core without it being directly spoken. Rules seem to be bend and broken by others to their need, while her actions towards freedom are seen as a burden.
Everything that carries those very emotions is the film’s eerie score and muted color palate. At some point, it feels like the film’s main goal is to put you on edge. The lack of bright colors takes away any sense of reality the fable is trying to convey while putting you in Diana’s disconnected sense of self. The soundtrack isn’t there to give you relief but solidify that feeling. Once the strings start to play, you cannot escape that same feeling of suffocation she is feeling. Stifled by tradition and uncertainty, it’s a story about the search for freedom at its core.
It’s not without its imperfections. There’s a strange balance that is trying to be struck by having this be mainly focused on Diana and those she holds dear. Often, the Royal family takes a backseat throughout the story only to suddenly gain relevance at various points. It’s more a nitpick than a complaint, but it does feel like a wasted opportunity to give the other members a presence without character. In a way, the film may have benefitted from stripping them from actual character and adding to the fable by creating an unworldly existence for other members.
A strong focus of this story is Diana’s connection to the staff. It gives her a few moments of reprieve and the other standout performances of the film. Sean Harris‘ Darren McGrady and Sally Hawkins‘ Maggie cement the character alongside her children. It’s the few times you feel at ease in the film. Especially Harris’ character is an interesting contrast to that of Diana. The implications of deeper bonds between them and his orderliness within the traditions and structure make him a good counterpoint of the story.
At its core, Spencer is a simple story. Yet, Kristen Stewart‘s performance and a heightened sense of reality carry it in ways that turn it into an experience you share with Diana. The music and color palette create this strange atmosphere that lets anxiety seep into your mind. You aren’t just witnessing the events unfold, you have no choice but to partake in the cinematic induced anxiety.